The best plant based diet for athletes

 5 min read

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Recently, more and more people have been switching over to a plant based diet. Athletes are no exception to this trend. This diet promises to be better for your health, life span, and as is becoming apparent, your athletic performance.

From football stars like Alex Morgan to world-renowned surfers such as Tia Blanco, it seems like everyone is making the switch to plant based foods. Athletes swear by the effectiveness of this diet; quoting increased endurance, quicker recovery times after training, and more energy in their bodies

This prompts the question, with so many athletes making the switch and ditching animal products, should you do so too?

What is a plant-based diet?

Before you can make an informed decision about what to eat, however, you must first understand what a plant based diet is.

Often, plant based diets are mistaken as being the same as vegan diets. This is not the case. In a vegan diet you do not eat any food that comes from an animal. This includes meat as well as other foods like dairy and eggs.

On the other hand, a plant based diet simply means that you eat a proportionally greater amount of vegetables, fruits, nuts and other food items that come from plants.

Moreover, after you go vegan you can still eat starchy foods such as brown rice or whole grain bread. In a plant based diet, less starch is consumed.

There is no exact percentage for how much of your meal should come from plants in this diet, however, the more the better. Some athletes even go so far as to drop meat completely. This is not necessary for a plant based diet, however, reducing animal products has other benefits such as a reduced risk of heart disease.

Is a plant based diet good for athletes?

Now that you know what this diet is all about, you may wonder, how well do athletes following plant based diets perform?

 Fortunately, there are plenty of case studies to look into. Take the example of world-renowned long distance runner Scott Jurek. He made the switch to a plant based diet years ago and the rest is history. As one of the premier athletes in endurance running, he swears by the benefits of consuming more plant derived food to this day.

The success Scott Jurek had thanks to his diet is not unique in the sports world. Countless other household names like NFL star Colin Kaepernick, olympic gold medalist Venus Williams and bodybuilding champion Patrik Baboumian all practice and espouse becoming a plant powered athlete.

Why is the vegan diet so successful?

With so many athletes either going vegan or increasing plants in their diets, it prompts the question, what about this diet increases athletic performance so much? Although it is hard to come by a sure fire answer, studies seem to indicate a combination of factors at play. 

1. The Role of Anti-Oxidants

Naturally, the human body naturally contains free radicals. These molecules cause muscle fatigue and can lower your athletic performance, particularly post-training. By eating more plants, however, you can help your body recover quicker.

Food derived from plants tends to contain more anti-oxidants. These play a crucial role in neutralizing free radicals. Thus, by eating less meat and dairy, and replacing them with plant based foods, you can speed up your recovery time after training.

2. Lower Fat Content

The health benefits of eating more vegetarian food don't stop there. Meat and dairy tend to have a high fat content. This fat can accumulate around your body, especially if you have been eating a lot of animal products. This is bad. Fat doesn't just weigh you down, it also decreases the body's capacity to use oxygen for aerobic activity. This capacity is called your VO2 max. As body fat increases, VO2 max decreases. A decrease in one's VO2 max means that their muscles will fatigue quicker and they will feel breathless faster.

By eating more plant based products, however, you can reverse this trend. Studies have found that athletes with more vegan, vegetarian, or plant-based options in their diet tend to have higher VO2 maxes. You may wonder why this is the case, and the answer is simple. Vegetarian options tend to be higher in fiber and lower in fat. Due to this, fat does not accumulate as much and the athlete's endurance remains high.

3. Boosts Recovery Times

With this information in mind, it's no surprise that, by including more plants in his meals, Scott Jurek was able to become one of the world's most accomplished long-distance runners. Lastly, some studies also seem to indicate that this diet may help athletes recover quicker from rigorous exercise such as lifting a large weight or running an extremely long distance. To understand why this is the case, we first need to understand the effect meat can have on one's cholesterol levels.

Many people who eat meat frequently suffer from elevated levels of cholesterol. This fatty acid can cause a host of life-threatening health issues. One of the less deadly issues, however, is that high cholesterol causes muscle inflammation.

As any athlete can swear, muscle inflammation significantly reduces performance and slows down recovery. This is where eating more plant based food comes in. Studies show that vegan and other plant based diets may, in fact, have an anti-inflammatory role to play. This makes sense as generally, vegetarian options are lower in cholesterol than their animal counterparts.

What do athletes eat on a plant based diet?

The evidence shows that a plant based diet for athletes does after all work. However, the question then becomes, what sort of meals can you expect to eat if you're on this diet?

A plant diet will essentially contain very few animal derived foods such as meat and dairy. To replace these foods, athletes often consume healthier alternatives as part of their daily life.

The way eating plant-based foods helps reduce your risk for cancers is also similar. With a robust immune system, your body is better able to identify cells that are prone to becoming tumorous. This way, it can kill the tumour well before it starts spreading and becomes untreatable. Who knows, a healthy diet containing fruits and vegetable could be so effective!

1. Nutrition & Protein Powders

Many athletes look to protein powders and nutrition shakes as a convenient and nutritious way to add additional protein to their diet, recover after a workout, replace nutrients that may be lacking due excercise and dietary restrictions, and simply to get more calories and nutrients.

2.Whole Grain Alternatives

Another important ingredient of a plant diet are whole grains. Normal white bread, rice, potatoes and other starches are unhealthy as they contain a lot of simple sugars . Eating these can result in an insulin spike which will make you feel the need to eat more than is actually required

Wholegrain alternatives such as brown rice, oats, and buckwheat porridge are the right option for an athlete. These ingredients contain complex carbohydrates which take longer for your body to break down. Since the release of sugars is gradual, no insulin spike takes place. Through these ingredients, not only will your body's need for energy be met but you will also preserve your health and reduce your risk of developing conditions such as diabetes.

3. Nuts & Seeds

No list of vegetarian options would be complete without mentioning nuts. These healthy little morsels of protein also contain healthy fats and many minerals and anti-oxidants. Nuts can offer a healthy snack in between meals instead of conventional snacks such as cheese and crackers, which are extremely unhealthy for athletes. Cashews, hazelnuts, almonds, peanuts, and pine nuts are all good options to choose from.

Can you build muscle on a plant based diet?

Despite all the delicious vegetarian options, you may still have an important question on your mind. Can I build muscle on a plant diet?

The short answer? Yes, you can!

It is a common misnomer to hear that you need meat to grow muscles. To understand why we can build muscle even with very little or no meat in our diets, we first need to have a grasp over how muscle growth happens.

Your body grows new muscles when two conditions are met. Number one, the muscles need to have gone through rigorous use and training. This process breaks the muscles down so your body knows to build them bigger for next time. Secondly, you need to have enough protein for the production of new muscle fibers to actually take place.

Often, a common misunderstanding people have is that vegan or vegetarian diets contain very little protein hence an athlete cannot grow muscle while on one of these diets. This is false. Just ask Patrik Baboumian. A world renowned athlete and strongman who sculpted a world-famous physique on a vegan diet. Not just this, you can also look at the animal kingdom, gorillas have no issue growing enormous muscles even though they are completely vegetarian animals. How can muscles be grown without eating meat? The answer is simple. Just eat protein rich vegetarian options. In regards to muscle growth, it does not matter where your protein came from as long as its protein.

Hence eating protein rich vegetarian foods such as nuts, legumes, beans, and tofu will be extremely useful in building muscle on a plant based diet. If you find yourself struggling to find or eat enough of these ingredients then you can use plant based protein powders as an alternative. These powders are very concentrated and, often, a single serving will contain on the order of twenty grams of protein.

When it comes to building muscle however, what you eat is only one half of the puzzle. An equally important factor is your training. To get the best effects of a vegetarian diet you should train intensely and regularly. Consistency is very important as your muscles will not grow overnight, it usually takes months to get notable changes.

One thing you should make sure is that you have enough energy for your workout. Your muscles rely upon sugars as their source of energy so you need to ensure that you consume enough in the form of complex carbohydrates as discussed earlier . Without an adequate store of energy your body will be forced to burn protein and reduce muscle mass to conserve energy. This will be extremely detrimental to your efforts hence should be avoided.

How do you transition to a plant based diet?

Alright, now you may be convinced that a plant based diet is the right option for you. However, a new question then arises. What steps should you take to transition to this new lifestyle?

1. Transition Slowly

The first thing to note is that you do not need to instantly become vegetarian and cut out all meat from your diet. Instantly trying to become a vegan athlete is likely a doomed endeavor. This is because it can be hard to suddenly stop eating animals and animal products. Cutting out eggs, poultry, fish, meat, and milk all at once will not be sustainable.

Instead, a better option is to have a slower transition towards a vegan diet. For example, in the first month you can try replacing red meat with tofu or other alternatives. After you get used to the new changes then you can proceed to improve your diet further with the replacement of more animal products.

You have to remember that a plant diet is not a binary of all or nothing. Instead, it can be thought of as a sliding scale. The closer you are to a vegan diet, the more health benefits you will see. This is supported by both research and intuition. After all, the health benefits provided by vegetarian foods don't magically switch on at once. Instead this process is a slow march towards improved health; one serving of grilled tofu at a time.

2. Monitor Nutritional Content

Moreover, another thing you need to make sure of, is that you are getting all the nutrients you need from your new diet. As an athlete it is vital that you meet all the macro and micro nutrient requirements you have. Switching suddenly might be a jarring transition as your new diet might not be perfectly well rounded.

By slowly incorporating more plant options into your meals you can ensure that your nutrient requirements are being met. After all, it is easier to create a well balanced meal than it is to create an entire meal plan

After some time, when you become familiar with what vegan options contain what nutrients, you can switch completely. At this stage you will likely know how to make a few dozen different vegan or plant based meals. This is good because a crucial component of having a well rounded and nutritionally fulfilling meal plan is to include a lot of diversity in both preparation methods as well as ingredients.

3. Use Protein Substitutes

One more crucial component of your transition to a more vegan diet is to ensure that you get adequate proteins in your new meal plan. A general rule of thumb to go by is that you need 1.5-2 grams of protein per day for every kilogram of your weight. By sticking to this rule you can make sure that you don't run out of proteins for muscle repair and muscle growth.

You can add more protein rich ingredients into your meal plan if you are in the process of bulking up and building muscle. Key vegan sources of protein include kidney beans as well as chia seeds.

Once your transition to the new meal plan is complete, you will be on your way to becoming a full fledged vegan athlete.

Will a plant-based diet make you a better athlete?

As we have seen so far, consuming more plants is the right way to go. However, one question you may be having is whether or becoming a plant based athlete will improve your athletic ability.

Firstly, it must be noted that a diet alone cannot make someone reach the national team or win Olympic gold. Instead, it is a combination of intense training paired with a good diet that has the potential of resulting in success.

With that said, however, consuming more plant based food will certainly give you an edge over your competitors.

Lowers risk of heart conditions

The first main benefit will be to your heart. A study found that over 44 percent of professional cyclists were under the risk of coronary heart disease. Often, being on a meat-containing meal plan as an athlete is harmful. This is because athletes have a very active lifestyle and tend to consume more calories than the average person. A downside to this is that, if athletes eat unhealthy meals like those containing meat and dairy, then the health impact shows itself sooner.

Vegan athletes, on the other hand, are at lower risk of such heart conditions as their meals are healthier for the heart. This is because vegan options tend to contain far lower levels of cholesterol than meat-based alternatives. Thus becoming a vegan athlete not only will your heart stay healthier for longer but it could even potentially extend the length of your career

Improves blood circulation

Another impact of this diet is on your blood. As discussed earlier, animal products tend to contain a lot of cholesterol within them. This fatty acid is not just bad for your heart, it can have negative consequences elsewhere in the circulatory system as well. One example of a negative consequence is your blood's ability to deliver oxygen to your muscles

Post-meal, cholesterol is absorbed into the bloodstream. This has the effect of thickening the blood and making it more viscous. Due to this increased viscosity it becomes more challenging for the blood to enter narrow capillaries and deliver oxygen to each cell. As the body's oxygen supply is disrupted and made inefficient, an athlete's performance suffers as a result.

On the other hand, if you consume vegan options, you are at lower risk of suffering from this problem; hence your circulatory system will remain unaffected and your performance will be pristine.

Moderates blood pressure

As if there weren't enough benefits already, plant based athletes have another edge over their carnivorous counterparts. A study conducted into the impact of fat on the circulatory system found that it can constrict arteries and reduce their ability to function. When arteries are constricted it becomes harder for the heart to pump blood around the body. This is because a decrease in arterial diameter corresponds with an increase in blood pressure.

Increased blood pressure is not good for your heart, lifespan, or performance. It can seriously impact oxygen delivery as well as the removal of waste material such as carbon dioxide from your cells. By going vegan or becoming a plant based athlete, however, you can avoid this fate.

Thus, it can be observed that vegan athletes have a lower risk of heart disease, more effective oxygen delivery, and smoother blood flow. If you leverage these advantages in your training and within competitions, then this diet is certain to give you a competitive edge over your competition.

Nutrition tips for a vegan athlete

Now that you have stopped eating animals, there are a few nutritional needs you have to be cognizant of.

Firstly, although you will get most of your minerals and vitamins from your diet. There are a couple of nutrients that will require extra attention.

Vitamins D and B12 are usually found within animal products such as dairy, fish, and eggs. These molecules are absolutely crucial not just for your athletic abilities, but also, for the proper function of your body's various organs and processes. Fortunately, this shortfall can be made up very easily.

All you need to do is consume supplements for Vitamins D and B12 as these nutrients are difficult to find in plant sources.

Another thing to pay specific attention towards is your intake of iron. Iron is used to produce blood, build muscle, and in dozens of other crucial bodily functions. Thus it is crucial for athletes to consume enough of this mineral.

The first step is to make sure that you are getting enough iron through your meals. Iron-rich options such as leafy greens, nuts, and legumes can be relied upon for this function. How much iron exactly you need will depend from person to person and vary with different activity levels and body types, just make sure that you are getting enough for yourself.

The second step is a bit more complicated but equally crucial in ensuring iron availability for your body's functioning. Generally, there are two types of iron that one can consume; haem and non-haem iron. Haem iron is the type found in red meat whereas non-haem iron is generally found in plant sources. Haem iron is more bioavailable, which essentially means that it is easier for your body to utilize for its different processes. On the other hand, non-haem iron is not as bioavailable, thus it is difficult for your body to process it into useful substances.

Since most of your diet will consist of non-haem iron, it is important to find a solution to this problem. There are two solutions available to you. The first is to simply take an additional iron supplement to counteract the impact of having less haem iron available. The other option is to consume vitamin C rich foods along with meals rich in non-haem iron.

This method works because vitamin C has the ability to increase the bioavailability of non-haem iron. There are plenty of vegan ingredients rich in vitamin C such as, oranges, kiwis, grapefruits, and bell peppers. Increasing the proportion of these ingredients in your meals will fix the iron issue without trouble.

Lastly, you want to watch out for your calcium intake. Calcium is used by the body not only to strengthen and fortify bones but also in processes like muscle contraction. Thus it is an essential nutrient for any athlete, vegan or not.

Usually we get most of our calcium from dairy products such as milk, cream, and cheeses. However, with no animals in your diet, you will have to be a bit more creative. A good bet is to consume tofu, plant milk, and juices, as all of these options are rich in calcium while also being made from plants.

In Summary

Vegan athletes are becoming increasingly common all over the world, and as we have seen, this is for good reason. Switching to a plant based diet for athletes offers numerous benefits both qualitatively and quantitatively. Many of your body's daily functions such as repairing damage, transporting waste, and circulating blood will improve as your diet switches to incorporate more plant based options.

Despite the exciting possibilities that this switch offers, however, you have to ensure that your transition is not too quick, lest you develop an unsustainable and unbalanced meal plan.

Instead, you should make the switch slowly by increasing the proportion of plant foods that you consume while continuing your regular exercise regiment. Eventually, with time and patience, you can shift your meals completely to plant based options.

There are countless stories of athletes who went vegan years ago and are now successful, thanks in part to the dietary changes they made. It is important, however, to remember that your efforts will only bear fruit if you pair them with rigorous training and practice.

Disclaimer: The LYFE Fuel blog is for informational purposes only. The information does not serve as a replacement for professional medical advice or treatment. We kindly ask you not to ignore professional medical advice because of any information you’ve read on If you have any concerns about your health, please consult a physician or appropriate health care expert.